Variant variance: With omicron looming, what did we learn from delta?

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — We made it past the worst of one COVID-19 variant surge and now we’re bracing for the possibility of another one.

But experts say the delta variant taught us some lessons that can help as the threat of omicron looms.

“Delta showed us that not only can variants emerge, and we knew that because variants were popping up all the time, but that some variants can emerge that really do fill a niche,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“And delta came on the scene very quickly (and) outpaced all the over variants and dominated the planet,” he added.

The biggest takeaway from delta might be the importance of preparation — which means getting those vaccination numbers even higher. Only 58 percent of North Carolinians who can get the vaccine — those 5 and older — are fully vaccinated.

“Preparation is really important,” said Julie Swann, an expert in vaccine distribution at North Carolina State University. “The most important thing that can happen is that more people get vaccinated, and this includes people who’ve never been vaccinated, even if they’ve had the disease before, people who are who have not yet had a booster shot. And it includes children and youths age 5 to 11.”

But along with each new variant comes the same concern about whether the vaccine will work as well against it.

“One of the big questions about omicron still is how much it can escape previous immunity and break through vaccination,” Swann said. “And so it is possible that that is stronger than it was for delta.”

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services numbers show the vaccines held up pretty well against delta, with death rates among the vaccinated 25 times lower than they are among those who have not gotten the shots.

“That’s one of the things that we’re really looking at to see if it’s like what we’ve seen before, or perhaps different,” Swann said.

Swann says one of the main things we can do before omicron inevitably shows up is to ramp up our testing.

“One of the things that we know from delta is that it’s really important to do a lot of testing — and especially if you’re about to change who people are interacting with,” Swann said. “Delta hit much of the south right when schools were opening up, and so that testing and the use of masks became really important. 

“For omicron, we’re now entering holiday seasons, when people may be going to see family and friends and going back to school, and then going back and gathering with friends again,” she added. “And so we really need to be careful about using masks and doing a lot of testing, as we’re changing our behavioral patterns.”

It’s also important to pay attention to the messaging.

People may be fatigued with the three Ws and the other mitigation measures but they become even more valuable when new variants show up.

“It’s so hard because people want to be done with the pandemic,” she said. “And unfortunately, we may be facing disease outbreaks for a long period of time.

“The good news is that we do have solutions — vaccine, testing, masks, and new treatments are coming down the line,” she said. “So we definitely want to take it seriously when we hear about omicron or other potential variants, because it can really make a huge difference if people, individuals, households, and then really the broader community, takes action to reduce that disease transmission.”


CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.


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